I'm the GM of a Shadowrun Campaign and have difficulties letting the NPCs move in a battle like they would in real-life.

Two of my players are pretty informed about how military or police would act in different situations (and so do their characters), how they would group themselves etc. I try my best: My NPCs take cover, do some battle moves like open the door, throw a grenade, close the door. But sometimes my NPCs act stupid and headless, because I don't see opportunities they could have.

In our next session they will be attacked by a Alamos 20k elite unit (for non-shadowrunners: they're terrorists) and I want to prepare myself better.

Are there any good ressources for battle maneuvers, tactics or something like that?


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11 Answers 11


You could always learn from real life. The US Army has field manuals available online. For example, FM 3-06, Urban Operations might be of interest to your specific needs. There are countless other sites that will sell you training manuals of varied usefulness. I do not recommend any of them, mostly because I am no expert there. Erik Schmidt recommended FM 3-21.8 from his time in the Army for small-unit tactics.

History would be your other bet: Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden is a good summary of how Pablo Escobar was assassinated and can give you lots of tactical ideas for how a major player might hunt down your pesky runners.

Clearly The Art of War by Sunzi is kinda obligatory reading. However, applying its advice practically is another matter!

But those does not help you in the short term.

Something I have used a lot in the past is to react to the characters' actions instead of having a pre-planned encounter where I know the location of everyone. I use the "would [event] make a better story?" and if the answer is yes, then [event] happens. For example, if the characters are sneaking via the sewers, I would have them encounter weird drones first, maybe leading to some sub-control post. Now, the characters can decide to either attack the post (thus risking discovery) or sneak past (yeah, right!), or find another way in.

The trick here is that you, as the GM, can retrofit the whole world around the characters' actions. Done right, this makes for a great game. Done wrong, it will feel like you are picking on the poor players. Of course, if your game style is closer to the wargame end of the spectrum, this advice is useless.


When I was an Israeli paratrooper a general stopped by to give us a little speech about strategy. In infantry battles, he told us, there is only one strategy: Fire and Motion. You move towards the enemy while firing your weapon. The firing forces him to keep his head down so he can't fire at you. (That's what the soldiers mean when they shout "cover me." It means, "fire at our enemy so he has to duck and can't fire at me while I run across this street, here." It works.) The motion allows you to conquer territory and get closer to your enemy, where your shots are much more likely to hit their target. If you're not moving, the enemy gets to decide what happens, which is not a good thing. If you're not firing, the enemy will fire at you, pinning you down.

-- Joel Spolsky, Fire And Motion

If you want a simple way to create tactics that players who are not trained soldiers will think feels realistic, keep in mind the principle of Fire and Motion. Your adversary has two goals: pin the enemy down to minimize their opportunities to fight back, and advance to a better strategic position until the enemy can be easily killed.

  • \$\begingroup\$ A great example of this in a movie is "Heat", when the crew is caught taking down a bank heist and has to fight their way out. \$\endgroup\$ – Pete Sep 4 '15 at 17:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is articulated in the US military as "shoot, move, and communicate." The communicate bit is implied in Spolsky's excerpt, but calling it out is important because if you can't share information, you can't mass fires or effectively move as a group. \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Schmidt Sep 6 '15 at 17:16

As a former sailor, I will offer that military personnel, ideally, know which one of a set of roles they are filling at the moment. It's a system of abstraction designed to simplify decision making when complex, fast moving situations arise. Each person knows several roles, and each role has a scope that it concerns itself with.

For instance - sniper teams consist of a spotter and a shooter. Between them they have a litany - specific things they say and do. Usually these roles are reversible, even though one of them is probably a better shot.

Even in simple guard duty, there will be a structure with defined roles. Not only will you have the guys at the gate and the patrols, but you'll have dispatch radio all points in a specific known order, with team names you won't find laying around if you just wiped out a patrol. On high alert, this round robin might never stop, or they'll have full duplex gear (everyone can hear everyone else all the time). Besides those guys and the watch commander, you'll have a ready reserve team with a specific response plan and timing requirements that they train on frequently. There will also be a duress code - something they can say that sounds totally normal but tells everyone that can hear it that there is a security breach in progress.

I will also tell you that your sense of tactics can be greatly informed by simply running little scenarios in your head. On the submarine we were very fond of discussing first how to most effectively steal or destroy our own ship, followed by how to effectively detect and prevent those things supposing we had no prior knowledge. We decided that under no circumstances should we ever allow someone on board carrying anything in a bag unless their orders were known in advance, and "administrative errors" would be searched before making calls to the squadron building - this turned into 100 percent bag checks.

When you, as the GM, run these NPCs, ask yourself - what role is this person filling? Why is he standing there, with a weapon, and what is he worried about? What tools are available to him, and how will he respond when someone tries to hurt him?


The Shadowrun Sourcebook Run & Gun contains a section on small unit tactics:

Tactics and Tools (pg. 88 - 104)

That's 16 pages of information you should read first because that is how it works in Shadowrun. Although it's mostly about the skill and it's fields of use, it contains description of each basic tactic and how to employ it.

If you are interested why those tactics work in Shadowrun or where they came from, you should continue to read the manuals and real world books. Just keep in mind that tactics in those books do not expect mages, adepts or critters, nor do they calculate their battles with cybered trolls in heavy armor. You will have to adapt them or they will fail.


It sounds like you would like insight into small unit tactics (team, squad, platoon).

One book I recommend is 'The Bear Went Over the Mountain' (link limit, this is on Amazon), it discusses Soviet combat tactics in Afghanistan. This book is a series of stories about specific encounters that reveal tactical successes and failures of the Soviet Red Army against the Mujahideen. It is broken up by encounter type so you can cherry pick engagements (stories) that you think will be relevant although the entire book is worth a read. A more abstract read is called 'Warfighting' (ISBN-13 978-1481234702).

Another place to look is existing military doctrine especially if this is where your players' knowledge is from. Here are some official documents.

Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT) Read this front to back.

Issues of Battlefield Ethics and Leadership Look at page (34) for "5-3-5", the most important section for you is probably the habits of action, namely guardian angel and geometry of fires.


The military calls for balance. It's strange but its true. On one hand, the military needs people who can lay down their life for a greater good. On the other hand, one cannot squander trained soldiers, human lives. Combat teaches you to balance things like that as best as you can in an environment which is constantly shifting.

Accordingly, there are a few behaviors you may see in skilled soldiers which seem counterintuitive:

  • "Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast." This is a very popular military mantra. It has many valid interpretations, but one which is applicable to you is that anyone who is moving as fast as they can is not trying to be efficient with their movements. Anyone who is being inefficient eventually finds themselves out of energy, and overpowered by an opponent who has been more efficient. While all combat must be fast, you will find soldiers are not always going "all out." They balance in the need to be smooth.
    This is easy to spot in movies like Act of Valor. You can see situations where the SEALS could have moved faster, and gotten in position early, but instead elected to be in position "at the right time."
  • The true goal of war is not simply to cause your opponent to lose, it is to cause you to win. Skilled soldiers understand this, and do not always go for the throat right out of the gate. An opponent facing certain death is more likely do do something drastic that can cause your soldiers to lose. Instead, a skilled solider knows how to find a win-win scenario when given one (but, of course, is willing to shoot to achieve a win-lose scenario in their favor, if the situation demands it). This can be seen in the movie Sniper. There are several points where it is noted that surrendering to the Americans is comparatively "safe" because they are honorable, generally not summarily executing those who surrender. This mindset is no accident. American soldiers encourage the idea that there is a rational human underneath the body armor, because it allows them to find ways of winning which don't demand the enemy lose.
  • Treat the group as a single individual. What makes modern soldiers so frightening in the battlefield is that their training allows entire squads or platoons to respond as though they are a single entity. Soldiers develop an almost-clairvoyance for predicting where their group needs them to be.
    This is visible in pretty much any combat movie, but Act of Valor would once again be an excellent example. Never once does it feel like you are up against a group of individual SEALS. It always feels like a single "SEAL team." Accordingly, you can see just how little communication is needed, even though the team is constantly on the move, a. la. Mason Wheeler's answer.

I also recommend thinking of aphorisms from generals and other important figures. One that comes to mind from Churchill is "Plans are useless, but planning is essential." A trained group of soldiers will always have a plan for the engagement, but they will recognize that that plan goes out the window at the first contact with the enemy.


While you have received great answers which work in real life, remember that this is still a game. I don't know much about Shadowrun, I presume it is still turn based (without opportunity fire and stuff) and characters have loads of HPs and are therefore fairly confident of charging someone even if that means taking few bullets.

If you are tight on time, you can view some Counter Strike gameplay videos on youtube. You will notice how players tend to stick together (at least in pairs), always stay behind cover, and constantly monitoring possible enemy entry points. Also use any equipment to your advantage (flashbangs, smoke grenades, tripwires, portable cameras)

And I would increase critical hit chance so they would not charge your NPC's, and would be more careful.


If I were you, I would take it in bits and pieces. You might learn some basics to start, if you're really a fish out of water; perhaps Murphy's Laws are a good, digestible place to start that at least will help you understand the mindset of your average experienced grunt.

Then, if you're worried about combat tactics, read up on the specific tactics (like the urban ops manual suggested by Sardathrion) that would assist you with GMing the next run; you don't have to worry about anything outside that. Over the course of the campaign (assuming that your players recurringly run into (para)military or police combatants) you'll eventually build a broad knowledge base that will serve you well.


A tricky problem, especially when players know more than their characters should.

The BlackEagle/BlackEagle Operative's kit has some nice small unit tactics.

However ultimately this is what the dice are for. The GM has to describe events to the player's satisfaction but the players can't use their own skills for the character's benefit. Fixing a star-drive or summoning a great old one are things for which we lack experience and happily rely on a random element and the GM's interpretation so if the players are being difficult thanks to real-world knowledge you have my sympathy.

I would say that Shadowrun (when I last played it) would reward "realistic play" very poorly. Modern small arms combat is really about suppressive fire - stopping people moving because they might be hit and wounded/killed. The chance of being hit is pretty low but the consequences are great so people hide behind cover. In Shadowrun I think it quite possible that a character might charge down an armed opponent, take a body full of bullets and still be ok so the whole thing goes a little awry.

Try 1 hit kills. Watch your players hide! :D And with anything. A knife, a 9mm bullet, both very lethal if one is good/unlucky. Players must fear for their characters wellbeing before they will care for them on the battlefield.


You can learn from your players:

  1. At first the player characters face NPCs who do tactically stupid things.

    What is the in game reason for the NPCs to have little tactical knowledge/skill?

    Perhaps they are an ad-hoc gang of young criminals that are trying to do some job way beyond their capacity; they have advanced weapons sure, but they hardly know know how to make the most out of it.

  2. After the encounter you chat out of character about the encounter and evaluate it with your players with tactical skill: what did they like? What was a stupid tactic for the NPCs? What was clever/challenging? Where did the enemies spend way more resources than they would have needed if they applied some tactics?

  3. In the next tactical encounter you apply what you have learned: the NPCs that the players encounter are somewhat more tactically skilled.

    Rinse and repeat …


  • The players will tactically win most battles;
  • You learn something about tactics in your setting;
  • Battles become gradually more challenging; and,
  • If needed, you can always compensate your lack of tactical knowledge by throwing more resources at it:

    As a GM you have infinite resources (although using them is not always fun):

    It doesn't matter if the NPC guard do not patrol, do not take cover, and never call in with dispatch. When the guards are spaced a mere foot apart and are all armed with BFGs, any team of player characters will have a very difficult time of getting in.

Occasionally you can have the character of one of the players with tactical knowledge not take part in the encounter for some in game reason. The player can now play the NPCs' tactics, advise you on NPC tactics, and/or help with preparing a tactical battle. A change of pace can be fun for players. Of course, you cannot apply this to epic (end) battles in which the players would want their character to take part.


A few RPG-specific resources are GURPS SWAT and GURPS Cops. Both of them are available over PDF, and they focus on procedural and tactical situations.


For example, the SWAT book has rules on how to enter/breach a room, how to position each person for maximum visibility, how to position snipers and rear guards, what equipment is available, etc. This is probably what you are looking for in terms of pure tactics.

Table of Contents: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG30-6064_preview.pdf

The Cops book is focused more on the day to day life of a cop, and how the police would react in certain situations. It's handy to be able to reference this on what police would do.

Table of Contents: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG30-6534_preview.pdf

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you expand on how these books relate to... reality? What about these books makes them suited to inform the querent about how police and military actually behave? \$\endgroup\$ – Tritium21 Sep 15 '15 at 9:07

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